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The race is on: Why northern cities are battling to front the cycling and walking peloton

What’s behind this desire to turn Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester into Amsterdam-style cycling paradises? Will it work? And what could it mean for city developers? James Wilmore reports

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Chorlton Cycleway, Brooks Bar Junction
Chorlton Cycleway, Brooks Bar Junction

Andy Burnham had a shock on day one as Labour’s then newly-appointed Health Secretary. Brimming with a plan to push physical activity for good health, he marched in to discuss it with his new colleagues. The idea, however, fell on deaf ears.

 

“I remember saying… that the promotion of physical activity should be core business for the department,” the Liverpool-born politician told a parliamentary select committee in March 2019. “They looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.”

 

Fast forward a decade and as Mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham’s zeal still burns. While his initial progress at the Department of Health was thwarted, one of his first acts as mayor was installing former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman as his cycling tsar. Between them, they have ambitious plans to turn Greater Manchester into a cycling nirvana.

 

When Burnham said promoting physical activity should be core business for the Department of Health, “They looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language”

 

Manchester, however, has neighbouring competition at the front of the peloton. Across the Peak District, Sheffield mayor Dan Jarvis appointed Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey as his new walking and cycling commissioner in April as the region ramps up infrastructure spending plans. Meanwhile, Manchester’s great rival, Liverpool, also unveiled its first active travel commissioner this year amid plans to boost its cycling network.

 

So what’s behind this desire to turn cities into Amsterdam-style cycling paradises? Will it work? And what could it mean for city developers?

 

Two years ago, the Department for Transport launched a ‘Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy’. Page one of that document spelt out the aim: “We want to make cycling and walking the natural choices for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey.”

 

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield
Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield

 

Inside, the document expanded: “For too long, some have seen cycling as a niche activity, rather than a normal activity for all. If we can increase levels of walking and cycling, the benefits are substantial.” Cheaper travel, better health, lower congestion, better air quality, and “vibrant, attractive places and communities”, are all listed as benefits.

 

The UK could certainly do with a push in these areas. Seven out of 10 UK adults never ride a bike, yet the UK has Europe’s third highest obesity rate. The UK is the world’s 10th most congested country. And more than 40 of UK towns and cities are at, or have exceeded, air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization.

 

Part of the problem lies in the deep-rooted suspicion around cyclists: a them-and-us attitude between people who sometimes choose to travel on two wheels and committed motorists. Social media is full of videos of angry exchanges between car drivers and cyclists battling it out on Britain’s roads. It’s a depressing spectacle, especially compared to the normality of cycling in more progressive European countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.

 

Safety, however, remains the key concern for many. Around 60% of people would consider active modes of transport if they felt safe, according to research

 

In Manchester, where pollution levels have been branded a “public health crisis”, the need is greater than most.

 

Martin Key, an adviser to Chris Boardman at Greater Manchester Combined Authority, believes this problem can be overcome. “We have to normalise the activity, and that means properly catering for people,” he says. “In London, you see lots of different people riding bikes and that’s because of the infrastructure.” Safety, however, remains the key concern for many. Key says around 60% of people would consider active modes of transport if they felt safe, according to research.

 

The Manchester city region has created an overall £1.5bn masterplan, involving building 70 miles of new cycling and walking routes, known as the Bee Network. Last month, a second wave of proposals were unveiled, allocating another £137m on the plans, including a radical cycling and walking bridge in Stockport.

 

Crusader Mill in Manchester, Capital & Centric
Crusader Mill in Manchester, Capital & Centric

 

Key believes there is little choice, with an unprecedented amount of development exploding across the city centre.

 

“As the city grows we have got to get people to travel in different ways,” explains Key. “Cycling’s not for every journey, it’s about shifting a small number of journeys.”

 

And this is where developers come in. “I really hope the scale of the (Beelines) network inspires developers,” says Key. “It will change the look and feel (of the city), increase house prices and the desire for people to drive their car all the time.”

 

One developer that is already embracing the changes is Manchester-based Capital & Centric. On two of its residential sites in Manchester - Crusader Mill and Talbot - it is developing the spaces without car parks and replacing them with courtyards and cycle parking spaces. "It’s a change of approach,” says Adam Higgins, Capital & Centric’s co-founder.

 

“It felt like a brave decision a few years ago and we wondered if we were going to get support of other planners.”

 

As Manchester’s city centre population soars, deterring cars and encouraging cycling and walking, becomes a priority

 

But now, Higgins thinks the move makes total sense. “With driverless cars, the continuing rise of car clubs and fewer young people driving, car parking is becoming less and less relevant. It’s a complete backward step to be putting a car park in the middle of what could be a beautiful resident’s garden.”

 

In fact, he argues it is essential that as Manchester’s city centre population soars, deterring cars and encouraging cycling and walking, becomes a priority.

 

“If all those new people had cars, Manchester would become a deeply unpleasant place to live,” says Higgins. “We don’t want to become like London. As its population increases, Manchester needs to learn from London’s mistakes over traffic.”

 

In Sheffield, Capital & Centric is adopting a similar approach. Its 97-loft apartment development, Eyewitness, is also being built without a car park. Higgins is encouraged by the response so far from buyers.

 

Author, architect and cycling advocate Steven Fleming, agrees that developers should be brave in their approach.

 

“The fear is that rich people with their BMWs aren’t going to want and come and buy, so you’re going to lose out,” he says. But he points to a scheme he advised on in Australia, where the sale price of apartments actually doubled, partly due to incorporating cycle storage.

 

When it comes to convincing people to cycle in Sheffield though, the city has a particular challenge - its hills. Even Dame Storey has admitted the Steel City has some “crazy hills”.

 

But Sheffield City Region’s director of programme commissioning, Mark Lynam, argues the problem of hills can be overcome. “They are something we need to consider, but should not be used as an excuse,” he says. “It’s about working smartly on how we design the infrastructure.”

 

Lynam believes forward thinking developers are embracing these changes in the Sheffield region, but urges more to come on board. “We can’t afford to be building housing or office developments that do not take into account increasingly people’s desire to have greater choices over how they travel,” he says. “We’ve seen developers building new offices with shower facilities. But there’s not enough of it, it needs to become the norm rather than the exception.”

 

When it comes to convincing people to cycle in Sheffield though, the city has a particular challenge - its hills

 

In Liverpool, the ambition is equally great. Last December, metro mayor Steve Rotheram revealed work is set to start on the first phase of a “potential” new 373-mile walking and cycling network for the region. “We want people across the city region to work with us to develop ideas to get more people cycling and walking more, so the network we develop is built for them,” said Mr Rotheram. But he admitted: “We can’t transform the situation overnight.”

 

Jayne Rodgers, Liverpool’s new cycling and walking officer, says the city has the advantage of already having lots of green spaces. “We are looking at how we can improve linkages to the parks and how that fits in with the existing cycle network,” she says in an upbeat YouTube clip.

 

Aerial view of Stockport interchange and the cycling and walking bridge
Aerial view of Stockport interchange and the cycling and walking bridge

 

The activity in these three cities, and plenty more across the north and the rest of the UK, shows no shortage of ambition. The key thing will be securing on-going cash to pay for the projects.

 

At the transport select committee hearing in March, Chris Boardman voiced his frustration at the piecemeal funding approach by central government. “We are devoting lumps of cash to it, as and when we can find it, and it is absolutely crazy. Whatever mechanism it is, it needs consistent prioritising and funding,” he said.

 

Seven out of 10 UK adults never ride a bike, yet the UK has Europe’s third highest obesity rate

 

Andy Burnham even suggested the Department of Health should be asked to fund cycling infrastructure as it can help save money in the long-term, returning to his theme from a decade earlier.

 

Burnham added: “My simple point is that cycling and walking should be treated in the exactly same way as road investment, it needs a long-term, national, significant funding stream.”

 

Steven Fleming echoes this point. “Let’s not fund cycling infra from the crumbs we use on park benches and tennis courts,” he says.

 

But, despite being the author of a book called Velotopia, Fleming adds a dose of realism: “Everybody is stuck with the cost of a car, congestion, fumes and traffic deaths,” he says.

 

“It’s a mad system, but the capacity has been built for it. Driving is going to stay very popular and mainstream for a long time to come.”

 

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